In the past 10 years, psychology has seen explosions in the fields of cognitive psychology, sensation and perception, memory and learning, international psychology and many others, but when it comes to teaching high school students, many psychology teachers aren't equipped with up-to-date resources.

To help bring high school psychology classes to the cutting edge, a committee of teachers from APA's Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS) organized a weeklong retreat pairing high school teachers with leading researchers.

Amy Fineburg, a psychology teacher at Spain Park High School in Hoover, Ala., proposed and helped organize the Institute for High School Psychology Teachers on Biopsychology, which took place in July at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay (UWGB). Staying in dorms and eating at the campus dining hall, 32 high school teachers from 15 states attended the institute to learn about current research in biopsychology from UWGB professors and invited researchers.

Honing skills

The institute focused on biopsychology because it's the area that high school teachers often feel least prepared to teach, says Fineburg. The field of biopsychology explores the biology behind psychological concepts and addresses topics such as behavior-changing brain lesions, chemical responses in the brain, measuring neural activity and brain-related genetics.

But there's no reason to be apprehensive around neurons and neurotransmitters, says psychology teacher Hilary Rosenthal, from Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Ill. In fact, teaching about the physical underpinnings of behavior can serve as an introduction for many other topics in psychology, she notes.

"Biopsychology is the foundation for almost everything we do," Rosenthal says. "You can't talk about disorders or addictions without first talking about neurotransmitters."

Unfortunately, says Rosenthal, many APA-sanctioned lesson plans haven't been revised since the mid-90s. As a result, the lessons overlook fresh research--such as genetic bases of cognitive disorders--that would better prepare students entering college. Teachers can't fall back on the textbooks because high schools often don't have the budget to keep updating the books.

"In high schools, you can't change textbooks every year like you can in college," says Rosenthal, who estimates that high school textbooks stick around for about seven years before they're replaced. This makes up-to-date lesson plans even more essential, she says. "In psychology, seven years is like a lifetime."

Better lesson plans

One of the institute's goals is to update lesson plans to include the latest research in biopsychology. Presenters at the institute offered advice on what should be added, what could be changed and what should get the ax. UWGB psychology professor and faculty representative to the institute, Regan Gurung, led a session about new advances in stress and coping. He says that the institute can play a vital role in helping teachers meet APA secondary education standards.

"The institute supports those standards by making sure the lesson plans that go along with them are as up-to-date as possible," Gurung says.

The institute's lesson plan recommendations are being finalized and evaluated by the TOPSS review board. If they are approved, Fineburg says that one or two of the lesson plans might be available to teachers through APA's Web site as early as next year, with the rest following soon after. Fineburg hopes that the institute can obtain funding for future workshops to address areas such as research methods, developmental, abnormal and social psychology.

Because it's harder to inspire interest in high school students than in college students, Gurung says, it's important that teachers know as much about cutting-edge research as possible.

"If you have to get psychology across at the high school level, you need some tricks in your bag," Gurung says.